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Dr. Susan David: When to Have Grit and When to Quit

April 3, 2018 / Member Spotlights

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

The subtext of that quote is the idea that “grit” and perseverance are the essential ingredients for any winning strategy, if not the most essential.

This oft-repeated phrase, originally written by motivational business author Napoleon Hill, has a lovely symmetry to it. Even better, it’s nice and short, fitting perfectly on promotional tote bags given out at many a business conference.

But that does not mean it’s advice you should follow.

Grit as defined by University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth, in her excellent and bestselling book of the same name is defined as passion and sustained persistence in goal attainment. What’s more it is, she finds, an important predictor of long-term success. That’s an empowering message to anyone who dreams of, say, starting a business or working to make partner, knowing the road will be long and your competition might have some advantages.

But while the message that success comes from hard work is an important one, to be sure, what I’ve learned in my years as an executive coach and psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and a researcher on emotions and thriving, is that this is hardly the end of the story. Putting your head down and working relentlessly toward a goal that–for whatever reason–is no longer serving you does not make you a “winner.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

We should be gritty, yes, but not foolish.

The business world is full of people who cling to roles, plans, models, and unsupported, outdated mindsets because they believe grit is an inherent good. It is shockingly easy to get so caught up in sticktoitiveness that you’re blind to the fact that you’re stuck.

To be clear, Duckworth isn’t advocating remaining in harmful situations for the sake of being gritty, but it’s all too easy for people be persistent and passionate in ways that are unhealthy and lead to burnout, do not actually align with their real desires or do not reflect the truth of their situation. They treat grit as a virtue in and of itself, even when it is not serving them, and even when it means they lose the chance to pursue that which would lead to true success or fulfillment.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I enjoying or finding satisfaction in what I’m doing—perhaps not every second of every day, but overall?
  • Is what I am doing a reflection of what is truly important to me?
  • Do I spend most days using what I am good at in pursuit of my goal?
  • In my gut, do I believe I can be successful in meeting my goal?
  • In sticking with this plan, what opportunities that I might find exciting or interesting or important, am I passing up? Am I okay missing out on those?

Answering questions like these requires what I call emotional agility (watch Susan David’s webinar to learn more) – the ability to notice our emotions (even the most difficult ones) with compassion and curiosity, and then to take actions that match our intentions and values. When we’re emotionally agile, we can re-evaluate our goals and expectations set long ago, in light of current information. The world is constantly changing, and we, too, are evolving.

There is ample research suggesting that cultivating the ability to walk away from existing goals when for whatever reason (e.g. health, lack of hoped-for resources, or skills that despite practice never really developed) no longer serve us, and in order to pursue alternative goals, can be courageous, smart and strategic.

Adjust your goals, adjust your grit.

In fact, goal adjustment is adaptive; it protects physical and psychological wellbeing. Grit needs to hold hands with the ever-changing context of our lives, especially over the long term. We need to lift the stigma of quitting under these circumstances, so that doing so can be rightfully seen as adaptive, and embraced with grace and dignity.

So, in my view, the essential conversation we should be having is not only how to develop grit in of itself, but also how to know whether you’re being gritty about the right things. In other words: Are you applying all your passion and persistence toward a goal that aligns with your values, in the pursuit of something you enjoy, that brings you satisfaction and meaning in your life?

Rather than “Winners never quit,” I prefer, “A real winner knows when to quit and when to grit.” It’s a little long for a bumper sticker, but in my view, a better guide to live by.

Meet Susan David

 Dr. Susan David is one of the world’s leading management thinkers, an award–winning Harvard Medical School Psychologist, and a member of the Virgin Pulse Institute Science Advisory Board. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and guest on national radio and television.

A #1 Wall Street Journal best seller and Harvard “Management Idea of the Year” winner, David’s book Emotional Agility describes the psychological skills that are critical to thriving in today’s world of complexity and change.

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